Best-Laid Plans O’ Mice & Mair Mice

In the magnificently ornate Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh, MacKay Hannah convened 50-odd professionals (oh, all right, anoraks) to discuss wur gubbermint’s out-for discussion National Planning Policy 3. The theme was the a drive towards achieving “economic growth and recovery in a low-carbon, sustainable Scotland”. Laudable stuff but after presentations from no less a personage than Derek Mackay MSP, Minister for Local Government and Planning and a dozen other presenters, I was little the wiser.

The problem seemed to be a combination of the scale of the topic under discussion and the narrow fields of view adopted by most presenters in order to make some element of it digestible. Thus while Dorothy McDonald of Glasgow and Clyde Valley Strategic Development Planning Authority spoke for half an hour on “Effective Housing Land Supply”, she managed to avoid mentioning the single most restrictive factor on such land supply for the past four years: the relative scarcity of capital and the paranoid husbanding of what little there is for their own purposes by the banks.

With the glaring exception of myself, everyone there seemed very comfortable and secure with the level of debate, so there is a case to be made that I have attained that irritable old git stage and am never satisfied with anything. Yet I could not help an impression that everyone in the planning business connects with their own narrow element of the process and clings on to it for dear life—a combination of the tale of blind men touching various parts of an elephant and the one about the Emperor’s New Clothes.

The Minister set the tone by rattling through what should have been a half-hour speech in half of that. He covered £10bn planned investment in 33 programmes and 54 investments; he covered fee levels; he outlined planning reform; he looked forward to carbon capture; national marine plans would follow this summer; our generating grid would be enhanced and international interconnectors built; vehicles would be converted to run green with recharge points on every corner; HS rail would come to Scotland and link Glasgow with Edinburgh. He did not hang about: it was Superman on speed…but without the cape.

Far be it from me to belittle ambition—regular readers of this blog will have ploughed through much optimistic speculation here over the past two years—but this was no realistic synopsis of what good planning could achieve for Scotland over the next decade; it was wish list as political statement and, as such, badly out of place in a public forum for knowledgeable attendees. You could tell Derek hadn’t written it: he barely looked up during the whole speed reading exercise.

Yet this set the tone for the other dozen speakers. Dave Gorman from SEPA launched into an Al Gore-(t)-esque diatribe of facts demonstrating the certainty of global warming and the urgency of green measures. He was particularly critical of the 300-year old building in whose glory we sat, disparaging it as a ‘stupid’ building that could not detect its occupants and therefore regulate heating and save energy.

If we’re bringing up the subject of environmental stupidity, home heating in Scotland produced 3m tonnes of carbon last year while cars were responsible for 15m tonnes. Perhaps he was unaware that, of the 22 SEPA offices across Scotland, only Perth and Thurso are within 5 minutes walk of a station and so over 95% of their employees and visitors make just as unhelpful a contribution to global warming as anyone else.

Given that so much of development (and therefore planning) is driven by money, particularly house developer money, I had hopes for Professor Duncan McLennan of the University of St Andrews. An economist-turned-planner who had spent time in charge of infrastructure projects in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, I had hopes he would bring the fiscal dimension into play. Even if he didn’t blame Mammon for driving quite desperate attitudes from the government to provide housing and turbines en masse, I had hoped he would introduce the need for weaving market forces into the fabric of planning so that local plans and financier ambition were not at loggerheads.

But not a bit of it. Paying what seemed rather wry dues to ‘Stalinist’ planning in Scotland (he was Donny Dewar’s special advisor in Infrastructure & Planning), he is convinced that planning can no longer be a concrete and space extension of social programmes but he called for a ‘multiscalar system’ even as he derided the ability of heavy investment in infrastructure to necessarily have a positive on growth. By the end of his slot, I was getting baffled by any relevance of economics in planning (and vice versa), even though their close connection is, to me, axiomatic.

The rest of the speakers were a mixed lot, from Government Chief Planner John McNairney who recited ambiguous platitudes in a manner that gave Nytol a run for its money, through Orkney & CoSLA’s Cllr. Stephen Hagen who made a decent plea for the consideration of small and remote communities by allowing them to take their own decisions as they best understand their circumstances. His assertion that Postcode Lotteries are not necessarily bad certainly struck home with me.

Best of the rest for me was Sinead Lynch of TPS Planning on Town Centre Strategies who deftly outlined the continuing problem, despite good intentions since 1986 to protect town centre vitality: since 2000 we still lost 44,000 shops and High Streets dropped below 50% of all retail space while out-of-town increased 30% in the same period. While she presented Livingston’s Almondvale as the most successful town centre, ah hae ma doots that building what is indistinguishable from out-of-town actually qualifies.

Most depressing was not the catalogue of unsuccessful retail areas that were both new and old town centres: Cumbernauld vied with Paisley; Glenrothes with Dunfermline for the most hopelessly catatonic; but the myriad of bodies set up to study/dissect/analyse and otherwise climb on the economic pathology gravy train of picking over the corpse of Scotland’s High Street. And while she cited NPF3’s “emphasis on the cities as drivers; we need a different approach to town centre revitalisation”, nowhere in the paras 42, 54, 57 or 67 she referred to does it provide a scooby HOW this is to be achieved.

Pardon me if you’ve heard this before but: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Scots Planning law is currently hostage to housing developers who array QCs to frighten your average council. Council planning/legal officials, in turn, seek a quiet life leading to a fat pension and roll over at the threat of QC-tipped appeals at refusals. And a Head of Service explained (in writing) to me that there was no point in allocating land for business purposes as developers would always make more money from houses.

The current Local Plan for my council has no economic backbone, no coherent business promotion, nothing on infrastructure strategy, no settlement statements as to why towns exist (or reasons to continue doing so) and nothing resembling a travel strategy that could merit green credentials. It is merely a carving up of land forms into parts house developers may pillage and those they may not. Our one-time county Planning Hero Frank Tyndall must be spinning in his grave at his timorous inheritors.

And this is the real betrayal of NPF3, continued into this SPP3 ‘consultation’. It is the ambition of developers filtered through the jobsworth sticky fingers of centralising Victoria Quay bureacrats and topped with headline-oriented catch phrases from government ministers. If we want a vibrant Scottish economy, this is not the recipe. Derek may have sense and ambition but it’s obvious from this document and his speech that his Sir Humphreys and their minions have neither. A REAL planning framework would provide:

  • A requirement for each City Region and council to have an economic plan driving any spatial plans
  • Learning, for once, from others. Put people in cars and you erode community (Dalgety Bay or Penicuik mimic America’s failed tract homes). Make it easy to bus/train/walk and you will build community. Look what the Dutch have done; study why Munich is so much more of a success than its supposed twin Edinburgh
  • The flexibility to allow councils to group investment as they see fit and not blindly segregate business from retail from housing because it’s easier that way
  • Commitment from government to change major infrastructure decisions from headline-grabbing pork barrel to complement City Region priorities (Who said the Forth Crossing or the A9 were higher priorities than connecting the economic engine of Aberdeen with the miserable economy of Glasgow?)
  • Realisation that out-of-town and High Street retail are NOT interchangeable. Sometimes (like Stirling) they can coexist but look to Peebles or Pitlochry for the kind of retail that thrives irrespective or what’s out of town
  • Ensure professional and other jobs are provided premises close to High Streets so that towns retain disposable income to be spent there, which will also require…
  • Reclassification of both business and retail so that fertile combinations are encouraged (printers near lawyers; art shops near design studios) and an almost willfully blind attitude among planners (commerce is commerce) ceases: metal bashers belong in out of town industrial estates; retail outlets don’t.
  • Transport where the ludicrous lack of co-ordination among train and bus operators ends asap. Ticket must be for end-to-end journeys and not care which vehicle you use to get there (Europe has had this for the last 40 years)

None of this is yet evident in either government or council thinking. And until it does, this we-need-house or we-need-jobs myopia will be the 21st century equivalent of stupid 1960s we-know-best investment decisions that gave us Linwood, Ravenscraig, Wester Hailes, Craigmillar, Castlemilk and the Red Road flats we just demolished.

Forgive us, Frank, for we know not what we do.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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2 Responses to Best-Laid Plans O’ Mice & Mair Mice

  1. Urban sustainability is among the most critically important global
    issues of the 21st century. Over half the world’s population live in
    urban areas – from small cities like York, to megacities like New York –
    and by 2050 that proportion will rise to 70% of all humanity.

    Green building ist the solution!

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  2. Dan Sutton says:

    Your first bullet point is the one that resonates with me.

    Having the planning community, the whole community even, have a good sit down and a think about what makes this particular town or city well off, what could help, what is currently getting in the way seems to me to be an important part of the planning process.

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